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An In-Depth Look at the Rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral


National Geographic has published an unprecedented look at the Notre Dame cathedral reconstruction two years after the fire that devastated the historic building.

The feature includes incredible 3D graphics that outline in detail the plans for restoration as well as on-the-ground interviews with the architects and the team behind its reconstruction. National Geographic tells PetaPixel that it is the only foreign media outlet (that is to say, not French) that has been given such a high level of access to the efforts to rebuild the masterpiece that is the Notre Dame cathedral.

Captured with Multiple Photography Disciplines

Notre Dame Rises Again
The jagged wound torn in Notre Dame’s heart by the April 2019 fire that destroyed its spire and roof is seen from above. The cathedral’s towering spire fell through the stone vaulting, crushed a modern altar, and left a hole fringed by charred roof timbers. | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic

National Geographic photographer Thomas Van Houtryve was the only photography who covered the reconstruction who brought in a 19th-century wooden camera and portable darkroom to the cathedral and made images on glass plates. Working in partnership with National Geographic and the public institution in charge of the reconstruction of Notre Dame, he created a series of images of the cathedral using a wide range of techniques: traditional photo reportage, 19th-century wet plate portraiture, and aerial drone videography.

Below are two examples of his wet plate photos:

Notre Dame Rises Again
Like Viollet-le-Duc’s spire, taller and more ornate than the medieval original, his addition of the chimeras reflected his ambition: not just to restore Notre Dame as it had been but to create the ideal Gothic cathedral. | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic
Notre Dame Rises Again
Notre Dame always had gargoyle rainspouts, but its purely decorative grotesques sprang from the 19th-century imagination of Violletle-Duc. He added 54 to the upper gallery encircling the towers on the west facade. | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic

The full story, which can be read on National Geographic’s website or found in the February 2022 printed edition, was written by Senior Environment Editor Robert Kunzig who, along with Van Houtryve, spent a month reporting on the efforts inside the cathedral, during which time they were covered in special suits from head-to-toe, complete with respirators.

Notre Dame Rises Again
In the aftermath of the fire, some wanted Notre Dame to be reborn with a new look, a contemporary one that would put the stamp of our age—and of the fire itself—on the cathedral. Others, those closest to the monument, just wanted it made whole again. The fire “was an accident,” conservator Marie-Hélène Didier says. “You forget. You try to forget.” | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic

The Efforts for a Historically Accurate Restoration

Kunzig reports that preservationists, architects, and other experts spent the year and a half after the April 2019 fire investigating the best methods to save the cathedral. Modern machinery will assist, but traditional methods, materials , and hand finishes will ensure the result closely matches its previous state. Work will begin with the spire, then move to the roof and vaults, with the goal of completing the restoration by 2024.

Notre Dame Rises Again
Wearing respirators to shield themselves from lead dust, rope technicians prepare to use plaster to secure loose stones in the vaults along the central hole left by the spire. The fire, which got as hot as 1400°F, ate into the tops of some vaults and into the two-foot-thick limestone walls above them, peeling off inches of stone and creating internal fissures. Some stones will need to be replaced. | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic
Notre Dame Rises Again
By 2024, if all goes according to plan, a drone in this position would be hovering just above the tip of Notre Dame’s new spire—a faithful reproduction in oak and lead of the one built by Violletle-Duc, which was destroyed in the fire. The new spire will be erected piece by piece through the hole in the stone vaulting left by the old one. Meanwhile, white canopies block the rain. | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic

The architects are restoring the church exactly as Viollet-le-Duc, the original architect, left it. They are rebuilding a framework of oak roof supports, in part using medieval hand tools—even though it was those wood rafters that burned. They’re rebuilding a roof of lead as well, even though the fire melted the old one and sent a cloud of toxic lead over Paris.

Notre Dame Rises Again
Four days before the fire, statues of the Apostles fortunately were removed from the spire and shipped to Socra, a restoration company in Périgueux. The copper cladding was as thin as cigarette paper in some spots, says metal specialist Olivier Baumgartner (working here on St. Matthew). He and his colleagues avoided making the cladding too smooth: “It must exude authenticity.” | Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic

The copper statues of the apostles that were removed from the spire for restoration just days before the fire and copper rooster from the top of the spire which miraculously survi ved the incident will be included in the restored building. The fire and subsequent collapse of the structure somehow did not destroy an iconic 14th-century statue of the Virgin Mary, and it will also be returned.

For more on National Geographic’s coverage of Notre Dame, read “Notre Dame Rises Again” on NatGeo.com.


Image credits: Photos by Tomas Van Houtryve/National Geographic.


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